This weekend the nation celebrates the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
But does the nation know him as much as we claim? Do we understand the message he plaintively preached while in his full maturity — at the height of his intellectual and moral power?
The incomplete narrative Americans embrace about King focuses preponderantly on his formative years as a civil rights leader between 1956 and 1963. This was a period when King’s public theology was developing but not yet tested by the many pernicious racial experiences encountered as he ministered across the country over a span of a 13-year ministry.
There are two general narratives on King: The early-narrative King and the late-narrative King.
The early-narrative King is characterized by the Montgomery boycott movement and King’s work with Rosa Parks, E.D. Nixon and Ralph Abernathy. The famous I Have A Dream speech at the Lincoln Memorial in the summer of 1963 also stands at the center of early-narrative King paradigm. So does his fight against segregation in Birmingham where King writes his famous epistle from jail.
Each of these early-narratives of King evoke his implacable democratic optimism, irrepressible civic liberalism, and a universal agape love. They characterize King as an ebullient emissary of democracy.
But King died in 1968, nearly five years after the March on Washington. By that time he had run the gauntlet of American racism — experiencing its totalizing effects in cities as diverse as St. Augustine, Florida and Albany, Georgia, and as different as Paris, Tennessee and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The result was the formation the late-narrative King witnessed by Americans from 1965 — after the Selma campaign — until his death.
The late-narrative King possesses a fuller grasp of social evil and complexities of democracy; he is wiser and more ponderous. His persona is seasoned and sober. Gone is the exuberant optimism of I Have A Dream speech.
By 1968 — when King gave his Mountaintop speech in Memphis, Tennessee while protesting with the city’s sanitation workers — he was clearly more cautious about the American cultural terrain, its military industrial complex and the predatory propensities of casino capitalism.
King’s unbounded buoyancy of the state of American democracy had diminished. Gone was the adrenaline about easily transcending the dreaded “three evils of American materialism, militarism and racism.”
The mature King was emergent in his Mountaintop sermon. The extemporaneous speech was admonishing, rebuking, cautionary. While retaining hopefulness, it reprimanded the path America would take if it failed to reverse the monstrous apartheid system it created.
In the Mountaintop speech King’s soaring oratory blends with warning and foreboding about the consequences of social sin. Political intransigence mired in the muck of unremitting racial practices in the North and the South are treated as adumbrations of civic death. Racial income inequalities are treated with rebuke. The dignity of the striking garbage workers are asserted with unapologetic force.
The irony is that while we celebrate his birth, King’s most consequential message was delivered on the night before his death. It’s an unforgiving message shot through with deep moral expression and a concern for the survival of American democracy.
Clearly, at the time of his death, King had cast his vision and social justice efforts toward the plights of those suffering in the inner cities — working against the poverty and hyper-segregation that consigned its residents into the economic and political margins.
In his last public message, King was demanding that we become increasingly committed to creating a “new Atlanta, a new Philadelphia, a new Los Angeles, a new Memphis, Tennessee.”
The prescriptions King espoused at the end of his life should be reflected upon as remedies for the nation today and beyond.
Committing to the mature, late-King narrative of the Mountaintop speech ― the one we seem to ignore every year as we honor his birthday ― would require courage, but it’s a momentous step forward in realizing his passionate ideals for America.